Review: ‘The Color Purple’ at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts

Magic. Magnificent. Marvelous. There are only so many superlatives I can muster in such a small space, but The Color Purple, now running at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, is phenomenal. Director Amy Jones, Music Director and Conductor Garrett Jones, and Riverside’s Producing Artistic Director Patrick A’Hearn, who also produced the show, have put on the must-see show for this spring. With music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray and a book by Marsha Norman, this Color Purple is based on the Broadway revival, which opened in late 2015 and ran until early 2017, and won two 2016 Tony Awards–including Best Revival of a Musical.

Kanysha Williams as Celie in 'The Color Purple' at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Susan Carr-Rossi.
Kanysha Williams as Celie in ‘The Color Purple’ at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Susan Carr-Rossi.

The show is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel and the 1985 Warner Brothers/Amblin Entertainment film. The story follows the hard-luck to triumphant life of a Southern Black woman named Celie, as she faces an abusive husband and bitter isolation from her children.

The cast is all-star, all-world, and a collective knockout. The vocals are supreme. Kanysha Williams played her character arc to perfection as Celie. As her story unfolded from 1910 to 1940, Celie faced challenge after challenge with grace and power. Williams, who made her Riverside debut, has been seen in MetroStage’s The Wizard of Hip, and received her training from The San Francisco Conservatory of Music and George Mason University.

Williams, as Celie, had energetic scenes between her and Wendell Jordan, who played the infamous Mister aka Albert. Jordan had a strong solo in “Big Dog.” Williams’ voice took flight in “Huckleberry Pie,” “I’m Here,” and in the 1940s boogie-woogie-style “Miss Celie’s Pants.” Jordan also played Mister’s vast and wild character arc splendidly.

Kadejah Oné was an audience favorite as the bossy, larger-than-life Sofia. She had Sofia nailed–even the character’s walk was down to a science. Her solo in the defiant “Hell No!” was unforgettable. She had a great interplay with Carl L. Williams, who played her husband, the entrepreneurial Harpo, in “Any Little Thing.” Mr. Williams recently played Sweaty Eddie in Riverside’s Sister Act. Bowie State University graduate Oné won the 2002 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Residential Musical, SPUNK.

Nia Savoy embodied the sultry singer Shug Avery, who was an old flame of Mister’s. Savoy, a graduating Musical Theatre major at Howard University, displayed wonderful pipes in “Too Beautiful for Words” and dueted beautifully with Celie in “What About Love?” Savoy’s performance was bold and sexy–with a touch of motherly wisdom for Celie.

IO Browne brought comedic flair to her role as Squeak, Harpo’s girlfriend. Browne’s voice lifted the upbeat number “Brown Betty” as Harpo and the Men built his juke joint.

Kadejah Oné (Sofia) with Carl Williams (Harpo) and IO Browne (Squeak) in 'The Color Purple' at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Susan Carr-Rossi.
Kadejah Oné (Sofia) with Carl Williams (Harpo) and IO Browne (Squeak) in ‘The Color Purple’ at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Susan Carr-Rossi.

The cast included Theodore Sapp (Buster/Bobby), who stood out in Dreamgirls a few years back; C. Alexander Smith (Grady); Chasida Alexa Taylor (Olivia); Taylor J. Washington (Church Lady); Montel Butler (Pa); Anthony Cosby (Adam); Brandon J. Johns (Guard); Rhonda Oliver (Church Lady); Brittany Smith (Church Lady);  William Anderson (Preacher/Ol’ Mister/African Chief); Ashanti Symone Branch (Nettie); and Stacy Harley (Male Swing).

One of the things that made this show special was the gorgeous lighting design by Mike Jarett, who bathed the stage with a series of purple lights onto Scenic Designer Frank Foster’s spare, wooden-planked set. Projection Designer Patrick W. Lord projected pictures onto the set that created apropos moods. Kyna Chilcot’s costumes, especially the titular pants in “Miss Celie’s Pants,” effectively covered the time period. Dance Captain Brittany Smith helped liven up numbers like “Brown Betty.”

The Color Purple Orchestra consisted of Conductor Garrett Jones, Julie Mack and James Rollins on Keyboard; Jennifer Curtis, woodwinds; Michael Huffman, trumpet; Nicholas Walker, guitar; Joanna Smith, bass; and Sam Carolla and Dakota Kaylor, percussion.

Director Amy Jones, who has recently directed and choreographed Mamma Mia! at Flat Rock Playhouse, has done the improbable: take a well-known piece like The Color Purple and make audiences believe they’ve never seen it before. A’Hearn, in his 8th year in the theater’s management, has molded Riverside Center for the Performing Arts into one of the best musical dinner theaters around.

Running Time: 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

The Color Purple plays through May 5, 2019, at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts – 95 Riverside Parkway, in Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (540) 370-4300 or go online.

Note: Regular price tickets: $48-$72. Discounted senior and group rates are available, as well as student rush tickets (with valid student ID). Evening performances start at 7:30 pm with dinner service beginning at 5:30 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Matinee performances start at 1:30 pm with dinner service beginning at 11:30 am on Wednesday, and 3:00 pm on Sunday with dinner service beginning at 1:00 pm. Show only tickets (without dinner service) are also available through the Riverside Box Office.